#11 Whitman Wednesday: Beginning My Studies

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This is a perfect poem for the first week of school. (Can you believe that it’s already time to go back to school?) It is 10pm here, but it’s still Wednesday, so I haven’t missed my self-imposed deadline yet. This week’s poem is called “Beginning My Studies.”

  Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
  The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
  The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
  The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
  I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
  But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

I’ve just started school this week, so this poem couldn’t have come at a more poignant time. I think Whitman does a lovely job of capturing just how much there is in the world to learn, and “awed” is definitely the right word to describe this. Do you ever get paralyzed when you think about how many books there are out there in the world, and how little time we have to read everything? I often find myself playing a game that starts, even if I read 100 books a year for the rest of my life, at most that is only 6,000 more books in my life! My to-read list is probably already a thousand books, and that isn’t considering all of the books that will be written during my life.

Whoops, there I go, loitering all of my own time daydreaming about all there is to learn. I think Whitman’s small poem is great at explaining how much time you can spend in the minutiae to really learn things: “I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any further…” Like the other poems of his that we’ve read together, this one is rejoicing in the small details, the daily life, instead of focusing on the grander, and perhaps more traditional, themes of war, planetary alignments, etc. Even the “least insect” is worth examining and dreaming about.


As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg.

What about you? Have you caught the back-to-school bug? How would you describe Whitman’s mode of learning?


On Starting Infinite Jest

I think Infinite Jest is one of The Big Books that every book lover wants to tackle one day, and guess what, friends? I’ve started it! I’m about a hundred pages in, and I’ve found myself annotating the book like crazy, in hopes that it’ll make the reading experience easier for Kimberly one day.

infinite jestWhat makes Infinite Jest so intimidating? For one thing, it clocks in at 1,079 pages, and 96 of those pages are tiny, densely packed footnotes. David Foster Wallace’s book also has a weird timeline, which, once you figure it out and get the hang of it, is pretty hilarious.

DFW was also a huge lover of the English language — he delights in both writing long sentences and making up new words. I quickly found myself looking up words that don’t exist outside of the Infinite Jest universe.

So far, I’ve been really enjoying the slow process of reading the book. I’m trying to read at least 10 pages a day, but when I have time, I find myself reading much larger chunks at a time. I have been pleasantly surprised that DFW’s writing style is actually very clear and coherent. Although the book is long and makes you work a little, it’s nothing like reading one of Faulkner’s dense, stream-of-consciousness style paragraphs.

I wanted to share some of the resources I’ve found so far in my reading. From DFW specific glossaries to timelines and summaries, I’ve been briefly reading through each of these sites after I finish a section of the book. This way, I feel fulfilled that I have an unbiased initial reading but that I’m not missing anything important. So far, these websites have all been spoiler free for me, but I can’t guarantee that! I’ll be sure to come back and update this list of resources as I go as a reference for all of us. Have you read Infinite Jest before? Do you have any tips or resources for me to add?


Infinite Jest, a growing list of resources for first-time readers:

  • Infinite Jest: on Wallace Wiki has a page by page annotation for vocabulary words. The nice thing is they include notes for the endnotes as they appear in the book, so that you don’t have to flip to a separate page for the endnote annotations.
  • Infinite Jest: a scene by scene guide
  • Definitive Jest is a vocabulary blog centered around Infinite Jest. This is pretty fun to read for the comments — there are some real fanatics out there who will debate the etymology of words. I love it!
  • Infinite Jest Index
  • Mark Reads Infinite Jest: I just discovered Mark Reads, which is a website where Mark reads his way through different series and books and writes extensively about it along the way. So far (as of 2011 — so who knows if he’ll continue this project! I certainly hope so), he has only written about the first 68 or so pages of the book. I found reading some of his thoughts while I got started with the book helpful, because it made me realize I was asking some of the same questions as him. It helped me feel comfortable that I’m on the right track even though I’m a little out of comfort zone.
  • How to Read Infinite Jest
  • Shoshi also has a post about starting Infinite Jest that helps clarify some things you may want to know when you first start.

#10 Whitman Wednesday: When I Read The Book

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This week’s poem, “When I Read The Book” raises some interesting philosophical quandaries.

  When I read the book, the biography famous,
  And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
  And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
  (As if any man really knew aught of my life,
  Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
  Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
  I seek for my own use to trace out here.)

I think Whitman’s talking about how un-know-able we all are from one other. How can you truly know anyone else, when we often know so little of our own lives? How, then, can anyone feel confident writing a biography on someone else? How can you sum up someone’s life into a few hundred words or pages? I think these are the questions that Whitman was wrestling with as he spilled his heart into Leaves of Grass.

This poem made me feel really isolated and lonely. I don’t think this is a very hopeful poem. I couldn’t find any glimmer of understanding or connections here, except maybe the “diffused faint clews and indirections”? I think that a lot of us here spend so much time with our noses in books because it helps us either process the world or feel connected to someone else. Whitman makes me question whether any of these connections are genuine, because they’re mostly one-sided attempts by me trying to reach out and touch the author. Maybe that’s why we turn to blogging about books, to try to share these connections with other book-lovers. I have a lot to think about this week — hopefully next week’s poem leaves me feeling a little more optimistic.


As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg.

Review: The After Party, Jana Prikryl

So far, 2016 has been the year of podcasts. I’ve been particularly obsessed with “The New Yorker: Poetry.” The way the podcast is structured is absolutely lovely. First, a contemporary poet picks a poem from The New Yorker‘s archives to read and discuss. Next, the poet reads one of his/her own poems and discusses this as well. The new poems read are generally the ones appearing in a recent issue of New Yorker.

On June 15, I listened to Jana Prikryl Reads Anne Carson.  I picked this episode because I like Anne Carson, and I was eager to hear more about other people’s analysis of her work. I must admit that sometimes I stop listening after the first half of the podcast, when the often-unknown poet begins to read her own work. I wasn’t expecting that I’d actually be intrigued and interested in the poem that Jana Prikryl had to share. After listening to the podcast, I spent some time Googling Jana and reading a few snippets of her interviews and poems. I snatched up a copy of The After Party as soon as I saw it online.

the after party.jpegOn the scale of physical to metaphysical, Jana Prikryl is definitely a very cerebral poet. My favorite poets work in both realms, mixing personal details with mythology (see Louise Gluck’s “Averno”, Jack Gilbert’s “The Great Fires.”) I don’t think that Prikryl is quite there yet, although from some of her interviews, I believe she is trying to create ties between her mental exercises and her personal experiences. For the people out there that say they just “don’t get” poetry, well, first I’d say — but not all poetry is dense and pretentious and difficult! And second, I’d say, this book is probably not for you. She is a poet’s poet — she is also an editor of the NYRB and has a Master’s degree in “cultural criticism.” Prikryl’s first collection of poems are hard work, but they can also be joyful and rewarding. I think she shines best when she is writing about nature. One of my favorite poems is “The Moth” which was inspired by something she read in Science magazine that says “New research suggests that butterflies and moths come with mental baggage… left over from their lives as larvae.” The resulting poem is evocative and does play between literal and metaphorical. Another one of my favorite lines is the opening lines of “Argus, or Fear of Flying” which starts:

A seagull at home in this valley steps into air
above the river. I’d like to follow
it holding the wind to account while flinging
itself out into it.

Each of her poems are clever and require a great amount of puzzling and pondering to fully understand. At times, I had to set the book aside out of exhaustion, and while there are still many verses that I do not comprehend, for me the joy comes from unearthing another layer of meaning and gleaning new facts through reading interviews and essays written about Prikryl. She intersperses short, light-hearted poems regularly throughout the first half (there are a total of 6, and they all have similar names: Tumbler, Timepiece, Titoism, Tumbril, Tumblehome, Tombolo.) These were a nice palate-cleanser between some of the denser poems, but still playfully provocative. Here’s “Tombolo:”

To keep them safe in time
of war we evacuated our hopes
to this island made of sand
dredged from the ocean floor thanks
to the moon’s land grabs and
remain calm if the ocean floor
under sway of the same moon
collects itself like an orator, forming
ways to talk about our island
until it quarantines no hope anymore,
young foreigners walking in and out
placing carnations and each one removing
a small stone.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the structure of this small book. The book is divided into two — the first half are just poems, not necessarily linked or connected together, and the second half is called “Thirty Thousand Islands,” which consists of forty linked, untitled poems. Part of what became “Thirty Thousand Islands” is what I heard Prikryl read for The New Yorker podcast. These poems revolve around someone named Mr. Dialect and the islands are based on the shores of Lake Huron in Canada. I’ll provide a link below to some longer extracts of her poems, but my favorites revolve around describing small moments. If you do read this collection, I’d recommend reading the poems out loud, as you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many poems rhyme in unexpected places.


I’d recommend this book to fans of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” to people who always look up words they don’t know in the dictionary, and to adventurous readers.

#9 Whitman Wednesday: For Him I Sing

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If you’re just joining us, I introduced Whitman Wednesdays as a way to get myself excited about poetry again, working through Leaves of Grass a poem at a time. I’m no expert on Walt Whitman or parsing poetry, but I hope to get better with practice (and by discussing the poetry with you, dear readers!)

This week’s poem is short and sweet, “For Him I Sing:”

For him I sing,
  I raise the present on the past,
  (As some perennial tree out of its roots, the present on the past,)
  With time and space I him dilate and fuse the immortal laws,
  To make himself by them the law unto himself.

My initial reaction here was whether the “him” referred to Jesus or God. However, because it isn’t upper-case Him, I don’t think this is a religious reference. I think the “him” being sung to is Whitman’s Modern Man, as we saw in “One’s-Self I Sing.” I think the last two lines are a daydream of a world where the “immortal laws” could fuse together and let the Modern Man become a self-sufficient self-governing person.

What are the immortal laws? Time and space are two of examples that Whitman provides. I think immortal laws would be anything that exists beyond human civilization — not man-made laws, but natural laws. What do you think?

Finally, I think the parenthetical aside is so lovely, the idea of raising the present on the past is much like growing a tree out if its roots. While it’s a pretty simple statement that a tree starts from the roots, it produced a lovely image for me to think about on this dreary Wednesday in New York.


As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg.

#8 Whitman Wednesday: Eidolons

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 I met a seer,
  Passing the hues and objects of the world,
  The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,
       To glean eidolons.

       Put in thy chants said he,
  No more the puzzling hour nor day, nor segments, parts, put in,
  Put first before the rest as light for all and entrance-song of all,
       That of eidolons.

       Ever the dim beginning,
  Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle,
  Ever the summit and the merge at last, (to surely start again,)
       Eidolons! eidolons!

       Ever the mutable,
  Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering,
  Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
       Issuing eidolons.

       Lo, I or you,
  Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,
  We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
       But really build eidolons.

       The ostent evanescent,
  The substance of an artist's mood or savan's studies long,
  Or warrior's, martyr's, hero's toils,
       To fashion his eidolon.

       Of every human life,
  (The units gather'd, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed, left out,)
  The whole or large or small summ'd, added up,
       In its eidolon.

       The old, old urge,
  Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles,
  From science and the modern still impell'd,
       The old, old urge, eidolons.

       The present now and here,
  America's busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
  Of aggregate and segregate for only thence releasing,
       To-day's eidolons.

       These with the past,
  Of vanish'd lands, of all the reigns of kings across the sea,
  Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors' voyages,
       Joining eidolons.

       Densities, growth, facades,
  Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
  Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
       Eidolons everlasting.

       Exalte, rapt, ecstatic,
  The visible but their womb of birth,
  Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape,
       The mighty earth-eidolon.

       All space, all time,
  (The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
  Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their longer, shorter use,)
       Fill'd with eidolons only.

       The noiseless myriads,
  The infinite oceans where the rivers empty,
  The separate countless free identities, like eyesight,
       The true realities, eidolons.

       Not this the world,
  Nor these the universes, they the universes,
  Purport and end, ever the permanent life of life,
       Eidolons, eidolons.

       Beyond thy lectures learn'd professor,
  Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all mathematics,
  Beyond the doctor's surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with his chemistry,
       The entities of entities, eidolons.

       Unfix'd yet fix'd,
  Ever shall be, ever have been and are,
  Sweeping the present to the infinite future,
       Eidolons, eidolons, eidolons.

       The prophet and the bard,
  Shall yet maintain themselves, in higher stages yet,
  Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy, interpret yet to them,
       God and eidolons.

       And thee my soul,
  Joys, ceaseless exercises, exaltations,
  Thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet,
       Thy mates, eidolons.

       Thy body permanent,
  The body lurking there within thy body,
  The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself,
       An image, an eidolon.

       Thy very songs not in thy songs,
  No special strains to sing, none for itself,
  But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating,
       A round full-orb'd eidolon.

So, first things first, what the heck is an eidolon? In ancient Greek literature, eidolon (εἴδωλον) is a spirit-image of a living or dead person. In the first stanza, Whitman meets a seer, and he spends the rest of the poem “gleaning” or gathering eidolons.

I think this poem is a ballad, which is generally four lines per stanza, and in some sort of rhyme scheme, whether “abcb” or “abab.” While Whitman’s poem doesn’t actually rhyme, it has a nice rhythm when read aloud. According to the internet, there is another requirement for ballads too:

The first and third lines are iambic tetrameter, with four beats per line; the second and fourth lines are in trimeter, with three beats per line.

I’m not great at counting rhyme schemes, but I immediately noticed that the last line of each stanza is about eidolons – the focus of the poem. I had a lot of trouble understanding this poem. From what I can tell, Whitman is warning us that our science and reality are eidolons, spectres of a true reality. I think Whitman is saying we must collect all of these eidolons in order to see a well rounded, “full orb’d” eidolon, instead of only looking at a single eidolon at a time. To Whitman, the sum is greater than the parts.


As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg.

There are some interesting blog posts that I found which helped me understand this poem. Check them out here:


A Playlist for Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84


For my 21st birthday, two of my friends gave me a copy of “1Q84.” At the time, I had a lukewarm relationship with Murakami’s works.The first Murakami I read was “A Wild Sheep Chase”, and Sheepman just absolutely befuddled me. Murakami’s work was the first encounter I’d had with something this strange, without all of the loose ends tied up neatly by the end.  Today, some five years later, I am a self-professed Murakami enthusiast. While I still haven’t read all the books he’s written, I’m going through a few a year. Since I finished my reading goal six months early this year (go me!), I decided to tackle a few of the big books that I’ve always been meaning to get through. One of these big books that I’ve been intimidated of is Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” — almost a thousand pages of a surreal adventure? How exhausting!

One of my favorite parts of Murakami books is the music that he incorporates. There’s always a piece of classical music that runs throughout the course of each book, for example The Thieving Magpie in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Although much longer, 1Q84 is no different. Janacek’s “Sinfonietta” opens “1Q84” and then reappears throughout the stories. Murakami talks about why he chose “Sinfonietta” in an interview with Sam Anderson:

It is, as the book suggests, truly the worst possible music for a traffic jam: busy, upbeat, dramatic — like five normal songs fighting for supremacy inside an empty paint can. This makes it the perfect theme for the frantic, lumpy, violent adventure of “1Q84.” Shouting over the music, Murakami told me that he chose the “Sinfonietta” precisely for its weirdness. “Just once I heard that music in a concert hall,” he said. “There were 15 trumpeters behind the orchestra. Strange. Very strange. . . . And that weirdness fits very well in this book. I cannot imagine what other kind of music is fitting so well in this story.”

After Murakami has evidently put so much thought into his music selection, it’s only logical to check it out. I’ve put together a playlist inspired by 1Q84, and I’ve got to say, “Sinfonietta” is perfectly weird for a Tokyo with two moons and little people running amok. Interspersed between the different movements of Sinfonietta are other songs that are mentioned in the book.

What are your favorite songs in Murakami books? Are there other authors who use music in a similar way?

I’ve compiled playlists for two other Murakami books — I hope to make playlists for all the other ones one day.